Apollo House captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people across the country in a month long occupation beginning before Christmas. Activists, artists and trade unionists occupied a NAMA building in Dublin city centre in a direct confrontation with the government. Beggars takes a look at the housing network that held it all together.
The Apollo House occupation organised thousands of volunteers, many of whom had no previous experience with activism but it was clear that there had to be some background grunt work holding the whole thing together. This behind the scenes grunt work was done by the activist pillar of the Home Sweet Home campaign, a grassroots initiative known as the Irish Housing Network.
The network was formed in 2015 but has its beginnings in some Housing Action Now workshops of 2014. One such workshop was led by the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or the PAH (a massive Spanish grassroots organisation which stops evictions and campaigns for housing rights), while another was for a handful of Dublin based groups who wished to share resources. Influenced by the PAH, the IHN began to develop its principles in 2015 which they kept right the way through to Apollo. IHN member Seamus Farrell tells us they “wanted to do something a bit different, something more consistent and something which centred on those affected.”
Conscious that some groups tend towards instrumentalisation and “doing flash campaigns” big on PR but dropping the issue if no immediate momentum developed, they adopted “the PAH assembly idea: those with grievances or housing problems would get to speak collectively on them. That was the basis of forming some type of response. We took from that those affected would lead and should be the centre of any housing struggle”.
Above: rabble’s own Bit Thorn captures some of the protests around the occupation, as well as the architecture of the space itself.
From the beginning, those affected by housing issues took the lead in a bottom-up approach which was a refreshing change in a system that isolates and disempowers people. As Farrell outlines “there was homeless people supported by those groups going in and taking over buildings”.
While this was empowering and continued through to Apollo, Seamus notes “it created a different dynamic in lots of ways, a dynamic which might have pushed too fast”.
Things developed quickly with “a series of actions, loads of occupations of councils, of the Department of the Environment. Then a massive project to take over a disused hostel and run it as the Bolt Hostel in summer of 2015. That action helped people trust each other.”
Having those affected lead the campaign shaped the network’s approach to the housing crisis and its power dynamics. While there was thought given to the role of the state and capitalism as “the driver of the housing policies”, it was also infused with an analysis developed “from people who had interacted with services before” who knew how homeless people in the system were treated.
The network is also influenced by the methodology of some radical leftwing politics and trade union organisers that are critical of advocacy or shallow mobilising, instead they are committed to deep organising. In Seamus’s words, this model involves “relying on the actual links that people already have in their communities, the power they have and the care they show towards other people”.
Whether this is through regular training workshops and skillshares within the network, or a constant presence in communities through door knocking and support groups, Farrell says it’s built into the network.
“It’s built in in terms of trying to have some sort of sustained strategy and long term goals and some way to build up structures that can actually scale up and build and have a large number of people affected leading it.”
This has been the key to the whole project for Seamus, “actually believing in the empowerment of those affected in their own class.”
Support groups in particular are of much importance to how groups in the network are active. On the surface it may be popping along to have tea and discuss some of the problems you’re facing but for Seamus these spaces “are the roots under which any type of work can be done ‘cause a lot of families and people can’t, they don’t have the time to organise or do things because of the basic difficulties they have in their lives.”
The IHN is made up of constituent groups based in communities and groups active on single-issue campaigns. One of these housing groups is North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community (NDB), a community group which Aisling Hedderman is centrally involved in. They have a large support group and have been a driving force of the network.
“In the support group people come who have difficulty with their housing to bash it out with each other,” states Hedderman “Because other people have been in the situation and it helps the other person a lot to talk to someone who has been in it.”
A good example of how they rely on community links and collective care is seen in how NDB facilitate those who may not usually be able to participate. “In order to facilitate those who have children,” states Aisling, “the NDB have the support group in the morning, from half ten to half twelve, so most children are at school and toddlers can come along no problem.”
Last Christmas they had a Christmas party in the Aryfield Centre for families affected by the housing crisis and families in emergency accommodation,
“We had a big Christmas party, Santy came, everything was donated from the public. The presents that were given out to people that Santy brought, the popcorn, the bouncy castle, face-painting, and shoe-boxes for the parents.”
While these local community groups are the foundations of the network, there are also campaign groups such as single parents group, anti-racism groups, and social workers. On top of this, though with no voting rights, there are also a range of teams who work on outreach, media, finance, support and cases.
Generally people have to get involved with a group in order to make a decision. The reason? As well as building in communities “it’s avoiding that kind of… structurelessness that becomes informal power and they end up driving it based on their personalities.” It’s about being accountable.
Ensuring this accountability was maintained was a difficulty in Apollo House as they faced negotiations with Housing Minister Simon Coveney,
“They wanted an immediate agreement. Normally it’s actually a good thing to be able to make calls and discuss but in the heat of the moment there is a need to have a temporary committee or temporary negotiating group that can make some calls that are trusted. So there’s no permanent committees. It’s groups making decision, teams facilitating it and when needed negotiating teams to go forward and be well briefed.”
This clear structure of decision making and teams trained up to work on different areas allowed the network to scale up so quickly for Apollo:
“It’s physically impossible for a structure that has over one thousand people involved for anyone know how everything is happening, for anyone to physically do everything. So there had be very clear structure put in at the start and had to be followed.”
In the twenty-seven days of the Apollo House occupation, the Irish Housing Network as one pillar of Home Sweet Home put paid to the Government and Dublin City Council’s empty pledges and platitudes that they were doing their best to deal with the housing crisis. They managed to provide accommodation to ninety people with inhouse teams of professional support and medical workers. Thousands of people offered to volunteer and over five hundred donated essential supplies. Hundreds of volunteers worked together on site and ninety people received six month accommodation that was not previously available.
While Apollo House may be gone, the network’s groups continue the work in communities in Dublin, Wexford, Kildare, Galway and Cork. Aisling has new volunteers from Apollo looking to get involved in NDB and she says “there’s a few other surprises” in store.
There is a National Homeless Demonstration on Saturday, June 17th, meeting at the Custom House from 1PM.